Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

“Oh and… kill the background.”

March 24, 2007

On set, I never make a peep when the cameras are rolling. But I just about killed a crucial dramatic scene last night.

The sounds before the actors start acting usually go something like this:

“Picture’s up.” (the picture from the camera is being transmitted to the monitors all over set)
“Sound speed.” (sound is recording)
“Rolling.” (recording picture)
“A marker.” (clapboard numbering the scene for editing purposes)
“B marker.” (used if there’s a second camera; C if there’s a third, and so on)
“Background.” (extras, commonly known as background, start to move)
“Action.” (and the principal actors start to act)

There are numerous variations, but that’s the basic structure. Last night, as I was sitting on the sidelines with three other extras who weren’t being used, the A.D. threw in a little something, almost off-hand, at the last moment.

“Picture’s up.”
“Speed.”
“Rolling rolling.”
“A marker.”
“Oh, and… kill the background.”

Instantly, the four of us who weren’t being used in the scene looked around in wide-eyed mock fear, then stood to run away like a gaggle of panicky cartoon elk. It’s a visual gag, so I’m not sure how funny this comes off, but it’s gotta be impressive that four people thought of the exact same joke at the exact same time, no? Not a second’s hesitation from anyone. After sitting back down — the scene well under way — we were all stifling laughter. Which of course made it worse.

Quick, I thought, think of something not funny. Baseball. Baseball’s not funny. Baseball. Pitchers. Right field. Kirby Puckett. Hehe. Kirby Puckett.

Is there a funnier baseball name than Kirby Puckett? Maybe Rollie Fingers, which always reminds me of genitals floating in a jar of famaldahyde. But Kirby Puckett is funny too. At this point I wasn’t outright cackling, but my breathy attempts to cool off were certainly becoming audible. I was just far enough away from mics so that none of the crew noticed, but all four of us came dangerously close to exploding into belly laughs before silently seperating ourselves and staring at the floor.

Meanwhile, I think one of the characters was dying.

On the plus side, I guess I should be flattered that the A.D. used the human “kill,” rather than the inanimate “strike,” which I’ve heard before. “Strike the background,” like we’re props. (We are, but the reminder isn’t always appreciated).

Overheard

March 20, 2007

On the set of House today, I heard one end of a phone conversation that just plain didn’t make any sense.

“….”
“You mean the ragin’ Cajun, James Carville.”
“….”
“Oh, you must mean Tucker Carlson?”
“….”
“I know who you’re thinking of: Gene Shalit.”
“….”
“Maybe Joel Siegel from Good Morning America?”

I tried my best to fill in the other end of the conversation.

-“Hey dude, help me out, I’m thinking of a guy on TV. You know, he’s on TV, sorta unusual looking. Talks about politics.”
-“You mean the ragin’ Cajun, James Carville.”
-“No, no, not him. Not so ugly. And not bald. And with a bowtie.”
-“Oh, you must mean Tucker Carlson?”
-“No, older than that. And with a fro. And maybe instead of being a political commentator like I said before, he reviews movies.”
-“I know who you’re thinking of: Gene Shalit.”
-“No. Forget the bowtie. I guess I made that up too. Sorta like Geraldo, but not Geraldo.”
-“Maybe Joel Siegel from Good Morning America?”
-“No, no, not him. You’re not very good at this are you?”

These are random thoughts

January 26, 2007

Just read Dave Eggers’ most enjoyable A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and thought the following:

He got there first. Like me, like my writing, what it was supposed to be, but with a more interesting story and more aggression, a manic streak at least twice as manic and flights of fancy gooier in their fanaticism and looser grammar, oh how I’d kill for that looser grammar and– How the hell did he have sex with 34 women? I haven’t had sex with 34 women. If I’d been born in my proper damn generation I could have had a bestselling memoir and lots of tragedy and sex.

Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky… it’s sort of about old people. There should be more things about old people. They’re neat.

On the set of Las Vegas two days ago:

Girl: “So, you have myspace, right?”
Me: “Uh.. yeah.”
“Headshots?”
“What?”
“Do you have your headshots up.”
“Oh. No. I’m not an actor.”
“Well what are you?”
“What am I?”
“What?”
“I’m a writer.”
“You’re too young to be a writer.”
“Well…”
“And too handsome.”
“Oh. Thanks.”
“You should be in front of the camera.”
“All writers have leprosy.”
“What? Can you write a part for me? Like a short?”

On TV writing

January 7, 2007

“The feature world, which I remain involved in, is not a medium, generally, where you’re able to write about character in the depth I like to write about character.  There are characters now on ER whose growth I’ve been writing about for years. … And subject matter is different in television.  The kinds of things we can write about seriously are more appealing than most of what you’re offered to do in features.” — John Wells, ER, The West Wing.  From Pamela Douglas’ “Writing the TV Drama Series.”

Ms. Douglas, former writer for Ghostwriter and Star Trek: TNG among others, expresses much the same opinion in her book.  On the surface, it makes perfect sense.  Movies usually don’t run much longer than two hours, while television shows can last, in some cases, hundreds of hours, so of course we get to know TV characters better.  It’s logical.  Almost obvious.  Except it’s false.

Do I know Jack Shephard from Lost or George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life better?  George Bailey, easily.  Which titular character has more depth: Veronica Mars or Annie Hall?  Tough call; one could argue either convincingly, but I would side with the latter.

Most enlightened people have by now acknowledged that TV is pretty great and getting better.  But for TV writers to argue that television is all about character and real life and Important Social Issues while film is about masturbatory fantasies for 12-year old boys is self-serving, dishonest, and requires extreme selective memory.

Yes, TV shows have more time to work with.  But they also lack a captive audience, and can’t risk losing viewers.  With a traditional four act structure (3 commercial breaks), shows must build to climaxes or major story turns every 10 to 15 minutes, assuming there’s no tag or teaser.  Some modern shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Lost have a full six acts, so that none last for much more than 8 minutes.  When you’re trying to cram 5 major turns into every episode, who has time for characterization?  And, indeed, when characters are being forced to make all these Big Decisions several times a week, how can they maintain coherence?  (HBO shows may not have this problem, but the six or so Sopranos episodes I’ve watched have shown such a complete lack of dramatic structure that the freedom, in that case, is actually a hindrance.)

There’s also the issue of stopping points.  Feature writers know they only have about 120 pages to work with, so they select only those moments most integral to their characters’ personalities.  TV series last as long as they can.  While a handful of great shows were cancelled before fulfilling their potential (Firefly, Freaks and Geeks), most drag on longer than they perhaps should.  Veronica Mars explored its characters pretty fully in its first season and had to awkwardly create more mysteries to continue.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer came to its logical conclusion at the end of season three.  Gilmore Girls managed a great four year run before it started recycling old arguments and was forced to have Rory and Lorelai act out of character to keep the drama fresh.  That’s not to say any of these series turned bad, necessarily; rather, exploring the growth of Veronica, Buffy and Lorelai wasn’t the writers’ main concern when certain choices were made.  Keeping the series alive comes first.

In the end, arguing about depth of character seems a bit ridiculous, because a good story, no matter what its length, will reveal as much character as necessary.  The play ‘night, Mother lasts only 90 minutes and takes place in real time.  How much could we possibly learn about Jessie and Thelma in that time?  Exactly as much as we need to know.

Background acting

September 26, 2006

I haven’t written in a few days because the girl who lived in my room before me hadn’t paid the cable bill in several months and they finally cut the line. This action unfortunately coincided with the one unsecured wireless network in range disappearing.

But I’m back, and I’m glad, because I get to report this: David Boreanaz is just as dreamy in real life as he is on TV, if not dreamier.

I did my first background acting gig today, for the television series “Bones.” I was on the set for close to 12 hours. The upside of this is that they fed us three times and gave us a few hours of overtime pay on our minimum wage salary. The downside is everything else.

I was under the impression there was a lot of downtime at these things, so I was excited to get lots of reading and perhaps writing done. Unfortunately, I could only carry a book or notepad in the “holding area” where I spent maybe an hour, and, understandably, not on the actual set, where I spent far, far longer.

And yet this wasn’t the most annoying thing. Neither was the constant standing in uncomfortable shoes, nor the lack of anything happening for about 95% of the time. (In case you’ve never read about it, here’s the skinny on movie-making: it’s really fucking boring.) But no, the idle standing wasn’t the most annoying thing. The most annoying thing was the starry-eyed dreamers. The desperate-but-perky wannabe actors who constitute a large portion of the background actor industry. There might be something endearing about these types, the ones who are ever hopeful of catching their big break, who keep plugging away for months and years, who never let go of their dream and keep that sparkle in their eye and are maybe just a tad self-deluded. It might be endearing, but for one thing: they never shut up.

A background actor has two responsibilities. One, take an honest stab at acting for the one or two seconds that you appear on camera. And two, shut the hell up the rest of the time. The actors, the really persistent go-getters who can’t wait to be a part of Hollywood magic, don’t seem to understand this second part. They’ll talk during downtime, they’ll talk when the director’s giving instruction, they’ll talk, in some cases, when tape is rolling. I wanted to ask them if they thought perhaps the reason they haven’t found more success might have something to do with the fact that they can’t be bothered to bring the slightest semblance of professionalism to even the simplest of gigs. I wanted to ask them that, but I remembered my second responsibility, and anyway was distracted by David Boreanaz’s hotness.

Titles

August 22, 2006

This weekend, Snakes on a Plane made $15,000,000 almost entirely because of its name. (This has been described as a disappointment, but compare that to the $9 million made a few years ago by the similar, but less titularly pleasing Eight Legged Freaks). Last summer, the 40 Year Old Virgin, with a small budget and without any stars, made over $100,000,000. Why? Partly from good word of mouth. Largely because, like Snakes on a Plane, its title described exactly what the movie would be about.

There’s probably a lesson here of some kind, but damn if I can figure out what. Obvious naming only takes you so far, only works in so many cases. There will never be another Snakes on a Plane, never another that succeeds solely on the goofy accuracy of its title.

Years after first watching it, I still occasionally think about the “Twilight Zone” episode “I Sing the Body Electric.” The episode itself is pretty crummy, notable mostly for having been written by Ray Bradbury. But that title. That title is phenomenal. That title almost makes me want to watch the show again, even though I know it won’t be any better the second time around. If you can craft a title like that, it hardly matters if the work is any good.

Joss Whedon’s “The Body”

August 17, 2006

I was a casual viewer of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” back in 1998, when it was in its second season. I remember enjoying it quite a bit, if for no other reason than this line, delivered by the ditzy Cordelia: “If you’re not careful, one of these days you’re gonna wake up in a coma.” I never became a fan simply because the show has season-long (and sometimes longer) story arcs that require devoted viewing to fully appreciate, and I didn’t devote myself to TV shows back then. Also because I was embarrassed to like something called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” no matter how good it was. Now, thanks to the wonders of DVD, I’ve been catching up on many shows, “Buffy” included. The second time around has been even more enjoyable, but nothing prepared me for what I saw last night…

I’d only cried once before at a TV show. It was the second season opener of “The West Wing,” where the White House staffers deal with the aftermath of the shooting from the first season cliffhanger. I held it together pretty well until Donna entered the picture. In a scene forever etched in my memory, Donna rushes into the hospital, fretting about relative trivialities, the only one in the room who has no idea the person she’s closest to in the world is on the verge of death.

I cried again last night. A lot. Really an awful lot. “The Body,” from the fifth season of “Buffy,” written and directed by show creator Joss Whedon, is not only a better hour of television than the West Wing tearjerker, it’s perhaps the most affecting episode of any TV show ever.

For those of you who haven’t seen it: stop reading and go see it. Download it, rent the DVDs, whatever. I don’t want to spoil anything. It helps tremendously if you’re familiar with the characters, but it probably isn’t necessary.

The episode starts with Buffy coming home to discover her mother lying dead on the couch, not killed by a vampire or demon, but by a brain aneurysm. Most shows would use the initial shock to take us to the next scene. Not here. After the opening credits and a quick flashback, we return to Buffy alone in the house with her dead mother. And we stay there for every painful moment of the ordeal, with several minutes coming from a single, uninterrupted, handheld shot. We see Buffy’s initial reaction. We see understanding set in. We see the panic. We see the irrational prioritizing. And we see it without any non-diegetic music. We only hear what the characters do for the rest of the episode. It’s unnerving, like something is missing and the rhythms are off, like the characters aren’t even allowed the small comfort of swelling, Sirkian strings in the background.

The rest of the episode shows the next few hours for Buffy, her sister, and her friends, following in the tone set by the first scene. Whedon uses a variety of directorial techniques: jump cuts, steady cams, lens filters, and so on, but it never comes across like Oliver Stone-style showing off. It’s always for a purpose. As a writer, he resists using his trademark snappy dialogue. There’s little of the usual humor or physical danger. No moralizing or melodrama.

This is what television can be, should be, what makes it a unique thing. Here we have a self-contained story, but one that will carry on, and one that is made stronger by the show’s history. Compare this with “Law and Order,” where the stories have no impact on the following week, or with “The Sopranos,” where the writers can’t be bothered to write episodes that mean anything on their own.

But forget TV for a second. “The Body” is the best illustration, in any medium, ever, of the first day after the loss of a loved one. The best illustration of the initial shock, the initial grief. Ever.

Pickup lines

August 11, 2006

My favorite ever pickup line, as written by Jane Espenson, is:

“It’s ludicrous to have these interlocking bodies and not interlock. Please remove your clothing now.”

While it wasn’t exactly conceived for this usage, the next time I’m at a bar, I’m going to try it out. I’ll let you know how it goes.